Starvation, malnutrition unacceptable in this day and age

The angry responses to a recent article on euthanasia triggered a new train of thought and this piece of writing. If ending a life plagued with pain and suffering due to some terminal illness is so appalling, why are we not upset when more than 50 per cent of children in this country die of hunger and malnutrition?

Where is the anger that millions more should go to sleep famished every night because there was not enough food to go around? Do we not feel revolted to hear that more than 230 million poor persons in India (the highest among countries) die a slow and cruel death due to starvation?

The latest report from the Global Hunger Index (GHI) ranks India 15th among starving nations. It also points out that the hunger situation in this country has escalated since 1996. These statistics should make us hang our heads in shame. The slow death of a young population by starvation and hunger should have caused more anguish and indignation than the painless termination of an older person’s life where there was no hope of recovery.

The Central government established the Food Corporation of India (FCI) in 1964 to control and distribute food production in the country equitably among all states. Its main responsibility was to provide food security to the nation. Commonsense tells us that this can be achieved only through a proper public distribution system that ensures fair sharing of foodgrains among all sections of the population. It is also obvious that the same should be stored appropriately under suitable conditions since food is a perishable product whose shelf life is very limited.

Even though the FCI was allotted the main task of ensuring proper distribution of food that was generated in the country, it was also entrusted with the task of protecting the interests of the people who generated that food in the first place.

Nothing wrong with that, except the fact that the farmer’s welfare is a subject that can be politicised and exploited for political gains. The farmers’ lobby is also a powerful one for obvious reasons. Whereas, the hungry child cannot speak or fight for his/her rights.

And, a starving man has no means to project his cause on public platforms. So, it has been argued that the government should ensure fair pricing of the food it distributes in order to enable the consumer to buy it, even as it looks after the interests of the farmers. Where would the farmers be without the consumers of the food that they generate?

Startling numbers

India has over 150 million children suffering merely from the lack of food. That is roughly 20 per cent of the country’s population. Of these, how many children die of illnesses due to malnourishment even before the age of five? How many more grow up stunted and underweight with little or no resistance to preventible diseases? How many more turn out illiterate and uneducated  for the same reasons?

Why don’t these things bother us? The UN World Food Programme (WFP) reports that nearly 30 per cent of the world’s undernourished population lives in India!  Our governments have failed the citizens in the most crucial area of food security. Not only must the foodgrains reach every nook and corner of the country in an edible state, but every citizen must have the ability to buy those grains.

Food security is not just warehousing and distribution. Unless people are able to afford to buy that food, the first two activities become meaningless. This means a simultaneous war on unemployment and starvation.

Economists have argued that the food policies adopted by successive governments in India are all geared towards maintaining the prices of food high to benefit the seller rather than the buyer of food. The seller, ostensibly, is the farmer who grows the food.

Even the economists have got it all wrong, because we know that the farmer does not sell his produce directly to the consumer. There is the proverbial middleman who reaps all the benefits by simply transferring the stuff from the grower to the consumer. This is where a proper public distribution system comes into perspective. If governments -- both in the states as well as the centre – maintained a clean and transparent PDS which supplies wholesome food at affordable prices to every citizen, the UN and World Bank figures would tell a different story.

Unfortunately, this does not happen because of inefficiency and large scale corruption. India’s so called food security policy is a mirage. It exists only in name.

The US government’s Food for Work programme seems the best answer. It has developed this scheme where people in poor countries undertake public work like road building or repair of infrastructure or even reafforestation projects. They are paid not in cash but in food that reaches their families as well. Cash can be frittered away by the wage earner, whereas food will reach the women and children. Carried out by the World Food Programme in many developing countries, this seems a viable answer to India’s hunger problem. It cannot be the only answer.

We have to evolve several schemes like more midday meals for school-going children and nutrition programmes for infants to make sure that no child in the country goes hungry. Death through starvation is indefensible in the 21st century.

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